Conservative cardinals have accused Pope Francis of stacking the cards against them in an ongoing battle over issues including the Church's approach to gays and to divorced and remarried believers, it emerged Monday.
In a letter sent to the pontiff on October 5, the opening day of a Church synod on the family, a group of cardinals described procedures for three weeks of discussions as "designed to facilitate predetermined results on important disputed questions."
The ostensibly private (but quickly leaked) letter was delivered to the pope by Australian Cardinal George Pell and reportedly signed by peers including the archbishops of Toronto and New York, Thomas Collins and Timothy Dolan, and arch-Vatican conservative Carlo Caffarra, the archbishop of Bologna.
A day later, without making any reference to the letter, Francis made an unscheduled intervention in the synod discussions to warn participants not to be taken in by "spiritually unhelpful" conspiracy theories.
And in comments that now look like a slapdown of a challenge to his authority, he also pointedly stressed that he had personally approved the methodology for three weeks of talks intended to reshape Catholic teaching on a broad range of questions related to family life.
- 'Appointed not elected' -
The cardinals' letter, drafted in English, was published on Monday by Italian website www.chiesa.espressonline.it.
It set out the conservative camp's fear that the synod's procedures favour liberals who want the Church to be more welcoming to homosexuals and remarried divorced people.
They said a working document intended to be a synthesis of views from a first round of talks last year needs "substantial reflection and reworking" and cannot serve as a basis for a final document this year.
They attacked the decision for most of the discussions to be held in small groups with the only votes scheduled at the end when it will be "too late in the process for a full review and serious adjustment of the text."
And they complained that the committee charged with drafting the document has been "appointed, not elected, without consultation".
They concluded: "It is unclear why these procedural changes are necessary. A number of fathers feel the new process seems designed to facilitate predetermined results on important disputed questions."
There was confusion over exactly how many cardinals had signed the letter -- the initial figure was put at 13 by the usually reliable website which published it. But at least three said Monday that they had not put their name to it.
The implied accusation of debate-rigging and committee stitch-ups will exacerbate fears expressed by a number of Vatican watchers that this synod is set to be remembered as much for the spectacle of the Church washing its dirty linen in public as for any reform or innovation in its approach to family-related issues.
- Conclusion uncertain -
And the cardinals, in their letter, hinted that the wounds caused will fester indefinitely if the pope pushes ahead with his desire to end the ban on Catholics who have divorced and then remarried in civil ceremonies from taking communion.
They say that allowing that issue -- which they see as requiring an unacceptable change to doctrine -- to dominate discussions would "inevitably raise even more fundamental issues" about how the Church responds to changes in social culture.
Francis addressed this concern in his October 6 statement, saying there was no question of opening a debate on Church doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage.
The synod is due to finish on October 25. But, ironically, it is now unclear whether the heated discussions will lead to the publication of final conclusions.
Francis has declined to confirm what his plans are on that score.
Formally, he does not have to be bound by the synod's outcome but ignoring it would carry the risk of exacerbating the divisions highlighted by the unusually rebellious tone of the cardinals' letter.